Trust and Risk—Ronald Reagan Redux

Ronald Reagan, speaking of diplomacy and the Soviet Union, famously said, "trust—but verify."

The statement never made sense to me (except as politics). If you’re going to resort to verification, you’re not dealing with trust, but with risk management. Trust without risk ain’t trust.

Something related comes to us from a fascinating interview with Stanford’s James G. March in the October Harvard Business Review. (Thanks to the 1-800-CEO-READ blog for the link).

HBR: In your film on Don Quixote and leadership, you say that if we trust only when trust is warranted, love only when love is returned, and learn only when learning is valuable, then we abandon an essential feature of our humanity. How do we lose part of our humanity?*


March: We justify actions by their consequences. But providing consequential justification is only a part of being human. It is an old issue, one with which Kant and Kierkegaard, among many others, struggled. I once taught a course on friendship that reinforced this idea for me. By the end of the course, a conspicuous difference had emerged between some of the students and me. They saw friendship as an exchange relationship: My friend is my friend because he or she is useful to me in one way or another. By contrast, I saw friendship as an arbitrary relationship: If you’re my friend, then there are various obligations that I have toward you, which have nothing to do with your behavior. We also talked about trust in that class. The students would say, “Well, how can you trust people unless they are trustworthy?” So I asked them why they called that trust. It sounded to me like a calculated exchange. For trust to be anything truly meaningful, you have to trust somebody who isn’t trustworthy. Otherwise, it’s just a standard rational transaction. The relationships among leaders and those between leaders and their followers certainly involve elements of simple exchange and reciprocity, but humans are capable of, and often exhibit, more arbitrary sentiments of commitment to one another.

March doesn’t use the word "trustworthy" the same way I do; for him, it smacks of the "verification" part of Ronald Reagan’s formula. No matter: the core of his message is that reliance solely on "consequential justification" (I love that line) strips trust of its essence.

Makes sense to me!

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